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Biblical Studies Asceticism
by
Richard Finn

Introduction

Asceticism may be defined as the voluntary abstention for philosophical or religious reasons from physical goods that are central to the well-being of humankind. The goods are primarily those closely associated with the satisfaction of bodily needs and the survival of the community: food, drink, sexual relations, sleep, and material possessions. Scholars do not wholly agree on the reasoning that distinguishes ascetic behavior from other forms of abstention. Most agree that ascetic abstention aims at rendering the practitioner morally acceptable before the divine. Few of these experts include abstention for the sake of ritual or cultic purity. Examples of the latter include the avoidance of impure foods ordained by the Mosaic law, though it may be helpful to include it, especially when some Jews lived by a form of ritual purity demanded of Israel at Sinai, or within the Temple precincts, outside its original context. The length and form of ascetic abstention vary widely. It may be adopted as a lifelong commitment, like the sexual abstinence of a monk inspired to be among those who “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12). Abstention may also be a periodic practice, like the fast on the Day of Atonement. Asceticism may be specific to an individual, like the Nazirite who avoids wine, or may be a group practice, as Early Christians fasted before Easter. Abstention from food may be general in periodic fasting, or particular in avoidance of specific types of food and drink, as in the refusal to eat meat. Abstention from material goods may distinguish between private ownership and common use. However practiced, asceticism is always meaningful, though the meaning depends on its social context: it may express the humility of a Hasmonean solider praying before battle, free the Platonist philosopher to attain union with the divine mind, or manifest the grace whereby Christians already live the angelic life of heaven. As the aforementioned examples suggest, different forms of asceticism were practiced and valued in the cultures that produced and treasured the biblical books. Within those books, ascetic practices are variously construed and either promoted or attacked. The biblical books in turn variously inspired Jews and Christians to new, meaningful patterns of asceticism. Jewish asceticism focused overwhelmingly on abstention from food. Early Christians largely rejected abstention from impure foods, but otherwise drew heavily on Jewish fasting practices and their meanings. Christians placed new emphasis on sexual abstention and renunciation, to which they gave new meaning. However, from the Hellenistic period onward, much Jewish and Christian asceticism was strongly influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy.

Introductory Works

The best very short introduction to asceticism is Harich-Schwarzbauer, et al. 2007; it also distinguishes between specific religious and philosophical traditions, though readers should be wary of the conceptual assumptions about the nature of asceticism within the different articles. For a helpful review of scholars’ conceptual differences in defining the topic, with a critical reflection on the merits of various definitions, see Saldarini 1999. Le Bras 1964 is cited because of its place in early French discussion of the subject. In approaching asceticism specifically in relation to the biblical texts, it is wise to begin with introductions to asceticism in the Greco-Roman world, while recognizing that these will in most cases neglect the full extent of Jewish asceticism and may be supplemented by articles specifically on the latter topic such as Fraade 1986. Until the late 20th century, accounts of asceticism were also often limited by Protestant or Catholic presuppositions about normative (Christian) conduct. Undergraduates looking for only the briefest account of asceticism in the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions may consult Ashbrook Harvey 1999 and Wimbush 2000. Those seeking a fuller academic introduction that includes critical discussion of both the concept and the historiography of asceticism should consult Krawiec 2008. Those interested in how ascetic conduct carries social meaning should look at Valantasis 1995.

  • Ashbrook Harvey, Susan. “Ascetic.” In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Edited by Glen W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, 317–318. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    From the classical Greek meaning of ascesis as “training,” asceticism is defined as “the practice of a disciplined life in pursuit of a spiritual condition.” This limits the topics noted: Greek philosophical and rabbinic self-discipline, Manichaean and Marcionite practices related to beliefs about the physical world, and monasticism in mainstream churches.

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  • Fraade, Steven D. “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism.” In Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible through the Middle Ages. Edited by Arthur Green, 253–288. World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest 13. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

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    A good survey of Jewish texts touching on asceticism before Late Antiquity, though readers should be aware of the disputed dating, provenance, and compositional history of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha discussed.

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  • Harich-Schwarzbauer, Henriette, Julien Ries, Thomas Podella, et al. “Asceticism.” In Religion Past and Present: Encyclopaedia of Theology and Religion. Vol. 1, A-Bhu. Edited by Hans D. Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski, and Eberhard Jüngel, 433–440. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

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    A set of brief articles cover “Religious Studies,” “Old Testament,” “New Testament,” “Church History,” “Ethics,” “Judaism,” and “Indian Religions.” The bibliographies are slight and dated, with few entries from the last decade. Taken together, the articles offer a helpful road map for the beginner.

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  • Krawiec, Rebecca. “Asceticism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, 764–785. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Contains, in addition to the material noted above, a valuable section on the ideas of Michel Foucault concerning “technologies of the self” and their relevance to Peter Brown’s seminal work The Body and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

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  • Le Bras, Gabriel. “Place de l’ascéticisme dans la sociologie des religions.” Archives des Sciences Sociales des Religions 18.18 (1964): 21–26.

    DOI: 10.3406/assr.1964.1765Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    French account of sociological seminars on asceticism prefacing a journal volume on asceticism in different religions. Helpfully approaches religion as a social construct with groups and institutions, rather than as a belief set of individuals. Asceticism is defined as personal, aiming at self-effacement before the divine, and encompasses strict chastity.

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  • Saldarini, Anthony J. “Asceticism and the Gospel of Matthew.” In Asceticism and the New Testament. Edited by Leif E. Vaage and Vincent L. Wimbush, 11–27. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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    The first eight pages of the book form a valuable discussion of different definitions of asceticism as used by other scholars.

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  • Valantasis, Richard. “Constructions of Power in Asceticism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63.4 (1995): 775–821.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/LXIII.4.775Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses Foucault on social semiotic theory to analyze construction of meaning with focus on the individual “ascetic.” Available online to subscribers.

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  • Wimbush, Vincent. “Asceticism.” In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. Edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh S. Pyper, 45–46. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Christian asceticism is set in the doctrinal context of transcendence. Discusses misconceptions: negative connotations in post-Reformation thought; undue focus on individuals; limiting analysis to the language of askesis. Notes the debt of Christian fasting to Jewish practice, and of Alexandrian theologians Clement and Origen to “Greek and Greco-Jewish” moral philosophy.

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General Overviews

Modern scholarship on asceticism has been strongly influenced by the formation in 1985 of the Asceticism Group comprising scholars from university faculties of theology and religious studies. Its members include Richard Valantasis and Vincent Wimbush, who have produced source books (e.g., as Wimbush 1990), and who have edited sets of essays by various scholars (e.g., Wimbush and Valantasis 1998). Valantasis 1995 shows how well this group has drawn on the social sciences to arrive at a sophisticated analysis of ascetic behavior in context. Harpham 1987 influenced the early approaches of several members of the group, which were originally strongly focused on the New Testament and early Christianity. The group’s theoretical approaches have favored the individual over the social dimension of asceticism. For a pertinent critique of this, see Ling 2004. It remains easier to find extended overviews for specific practices, such as Grimm 1996, than for asceticism generally or in relation to the biblical texts. Finn 2009 seeks to cover much ground in a short space and to redress the balance between individual and social dimensions of ascetic behaviors.

  • Finn, Richard, Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511609879Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Studies pagan, Jewish, and Christian asceticism within the Roman Empire, with an eye toward influences between religious traditions and for how practices in one tradition may be recast within an interpretive frame from another. Christianity receives the most attention. Little analysis of biblical passages other than those used in specific communities.

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  • Grimm, Veronika E. From Feasting to Fasting, the Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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    Good on the Old Testament texts related to fasting; much less detailed on Greco-Roman philosophical traditions. Of particular interest for Jerome’s attitudes toward food.

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  • Harpham, Geoffrey. The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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    Based on self-denial, ambivalent toward what is desired and rejected, asceticism is common to many cultures as an intensification of the restraint required for any cultural good. Despite this introductory definition, Harpham focuses largely on detailed readings of Christian texts and images read through the lens of modern semiotic theorists.

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  • Ling, Timothy. “Virtuoso Religion and the Judean Social World.” In Anthropology and Biblical Studies: Avenues of Approach. Edited by L. J. Lawrence and M. Aguilar, 227–258. Leiden, The Netherlands: Deo, 2004.

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    Argues for a reevaluation of the anthropological categories used to interpret 1st-century Judea with insight drawn from the role of “virtuoso” religious practices and asceticism in Sherpa Nepal. Relevant here for its astute critique (partly in footnotes) of the approaches associated with Richard Valantasis and Vincent Wimbush.

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  • Valantasis, Richard J. “Constructions of Power in Asceticism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63.4 (1995): 775–821.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/LXIII.4.775Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A widely cited and helpful theoretical discussion of asceticism, which first explores the complex nature of power, as debated in the social sciences, by testing theories against an episode from the Desert Fathers. The second part defines asceticism according to its role in social relations. The third part offers a study of how power is wielded in ascetic behavior.

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  • Wimbush, Vincent L. Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.

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    A handy sampler of different primary texts concerning ascetic practices; translated from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, and Syriac.

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  • Wimbush, Vincent L., and Richard Valantasis, eds. Asceticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    A brief introduction and forty-two conference papers by leading scholars predominantly on Late Antique Christianity, but with some essays on Judaism, Manichaeism, Platonism, Islam, Indian ascetic traditions, and Tibetan Buddhism. A questionable focus on “personal inner transformation” characterizes many of the essays. The papers were first presented at an international conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in April 1993.

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Jewish Asceticism

Few works cover all aspects of Jewish asceticism and only Jewish asceticism in any detail. Diamond 2004 comes closest despite its title and primary focus on rabbinic culture. Fraade 1986 is still the most often cited work in the field despite its slim size. It should be noted that the entries in this part of the bibliography are subdivided along three different lines: entries on the closely overlapping collections of canonical texts, the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Old Testament, form one section. The second section, Second Temple Judaism, covers the chronological period from the late 6th century BCE to 70 CE, within which very different forms of Judaism flourished. The third section, The Early Rabbinic Movement, examines what between 70 CE and the 6th century CE gradually became the most influential strand of Judaism in the medieval world. The different organizing principles in each case reflect the interests of scholars and readers, but also the nature of the surviving evidence for Jewish beliefs and practices in different periods. Thus, many Jews in the diaspora communities of Greco-Roman cities during the 2nd and 3rd centuries were probably not strongly influenced by early rabbinic texts. Their lives are known largely only through archaeological records, especially inscriptions, which give little or no indication of their ascetic practices and beliefs.

  • Diamond, Eliezer. Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    In addition to the rabbinic literature, Diamond examines biblical fasting and fasting in Apocrypha (including Tobit, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Psalms of Solomon) and among the Nazirites and the Essenes.

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  • Fraade, Steven D. “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism.” In Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible through the Middle Ages. Edited by Arthur Green, 253–288. World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest 13. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

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    This survey of Jewish texts on asceticism before Late Antiquity also offers a useful historiography of 20th-century readings of this material by scholars such as Weber, Baer, and Urbach. Readers should be aware of the disputed dating, provenance, and compositional history of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha discussed.

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The Hebrew Bible and Old Testament

Approaches to voluntary abstention in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament must begin with an understanding of the meaning and function of the purity code. This is most eloquently examined in Douglas 1970 supplemented by the author’s later study, Douglas 1999, which relates abstention to sacrifices. For a comparison of ascetic practices found within the Hebrew scriptures with those of other Near Eastern religions, consult the section The Ancient Near East. Negative assessments of asceticism in the Judaism and Protestantism of the period influenced 19th-century and early-20th-century scholarship on both the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, which therefore paid minimal attention to ascetic practices. More recent scholars have more to say about biblical fasting. Muddiman 1992 is valuable here for the historiography that it offers. One contemporary debate on fasting turns on whether we should distinguish separate meanings for the practice or should follow Lambert 2003 in seeing fasting as essentially an expression of anguish under affliction. A second debate, represented here by García Bachmann 2009, concerns the prophetic critique of ritual fasting. Scholarship on the rarer phenomenon of sexual renunciation, or Nazirites or Rechabites, remains rare. Frick 1971 is the best place to begin study of the latter. In most cases, attention falls predominantly on the meaning of texts within which ascetic practices are mentioned, or on the texts as windows onto history, rather than on the role of texts in shaping the ascetic practices undertaken by their readers.

  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1970.

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    The seminal anthropological study on the meaning and social function of ritual purity as exemplified in the Mosaic purity laws. The dirty or impure is a category of social order.

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  • Douglas, Mary. Leviticus as Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    A fascinating and highly original analysis of the Book of Leviticus that relates the Mosaic purity code and food laws to cultic sacrifice, the construction of the tabernacle, and social order in God’s cosmos. Douglas argues that Leviticus promotes the slaughter and consumption of only sacrificial meat.

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  • Frick, Frank S. “The Rechabites Reconsidered.” Journal of Biblical Literature 90.3 (1971): 279–287.

    DOI: 10.2307/3262717Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the biblical evidence that Frick refuses to see as necessarily self-consistent; outlines and rejects earlier scholarship; persuasively denies parallels with Nabateans; controversially identifies the Rechabites as metal-workers.

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  • García Bachmann, Mercedes L. “True Fasting and Unwilling Hunger (Isaiah 58).” In The Bible and the Hermeneutics of Liberation. Edited by Alejandro F. Botta and Pablo R. Andinach, 113–131. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

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    Contributes to a long-running debate over this prophetic critique of fasting. A ritual fast proclaimed by the powerful in support of their ambitions is unacceptable to God.

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  • Lambert, David. “Fasting as a Penitential Rite: A Biblical Phenomenon?” Harvard Theological Review 96:4 (2003): 477–512.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0017816003000531Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Lambert first notes the dependence of commentators on early anthropological accounts of fasting. An extensive review challenges the assumption that some fasting is fundamentally penitential or prepares for encounters with God—except insofar as penitence and preparation involve an expression of anguish through fasting. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Muddiman, John. “Fast, Fasting.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by David N. Freedman, 773–776. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    A short overview of the subject with consideration of its historiography, which covers not only the Hebrew Bible but also the intertestamental period and the New Testament.

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Second Temple Judaism

Literature for Jewish asceticism in this period divides first according to the distinct forms of Judaism. Asceticism in the more sectarian communities associated with the Essenes and Qumran is discussed by Murphy 2002 and Lawrence 2005. The latter persuasively argues that sectarian Jewish communities associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls can be illuminated through comparison with very much later Christian ascetic practices. Philo 1963, the single most important work from the more assimilationist world of the Hellenistic diaspora, is discussed by Kraemer 1989 and Nikiprowetzky 1979. Charlesworth 1986 highlights how open Hellenistic Judaism was to various influences. Chepey 2005 shows the enduring institutional existence of Nazirites in the period. Scholars differ on how ascetic terms and categories derived from Greco-Roman philosophy or Christianity can aid in understanding Jewish practices. One question is how to read the evidence of authors who use the Hellenistic language of philosophical asceticism to describe Jewish practices, which may have other meanings either within the prophetic tradition, as suggested by Thiering 1974, or within the symbolic purity codes of the Mosaic law (on which see Harrington 2001, cited under The Early Rabbinic Movement, and Finn 2009, cited under General Overviews).

  • Charlesworth, James. “Greek, Persian, Roman, Syrian, and Egyptian Influences in Early Jewish Theology: A Study of the History of the Rechabites.” In Hellenica et Judaica: Hommage à Valentin Nikiprowetzky. Edited by A. Caquot, M. Hadas-Lebel, and J. Riaud, 219–243. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1986.

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    Argues that a central section of the later Christian text is a Hellenistic Jewish interpretation of Jeremiah 35, manifesting the widespread cultural influences extant in Jewish literature of the period. “Hellenistic Judaism may be seen as a cultural conduit” (p. 243).

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  • Chepey, Stuart. Nazirites in Late Second Temple Judaism: A Survey of Ancient Jewish Writings, the New Testament, Archaeological Evidence, and Other Writings from Late Antiquity. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity 60. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.

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    This monograph draws on different strands of Jewish and Early Christian literature (Philo, Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, rabbinic texts, Acts, and Hegesippus) to critique previous scholarship. Nazirite vows were still taken, in petitioning healing or other aid from God, until the destruction of the Temple.

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  • Kraemer, Ross. “Monastic Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Egypt: Philo Judaeus on the Therapeutrides.” In Special Issue: Working Together in the Middle Ages: Perspectives on Women’s Communities. Edited by Judith M. Bennett, Elizabeth A. Clark, and Sarah Westphal-Wihl. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14.2 (1989): 342–370.

    DOI: 10.1086/494513Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sets Philo’s account of women among the Therapeutae in the double context of (1) social and economic conditions permitting women to enter the community and (2) Philo’s gender symbolism, where passion is feminine, reason is masculine, and women recover virginity in assimilation to God. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Lawrence, Louise J. “‘Men of Perfect Holiness’ (1QS 7.20): Social-Scientific Thoughts on Group Identity, Asceticism and Ethical Development in the Rule of the Community.” In New Directions in Qumran Studies: Proceedings of the Bristol Colloquium on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 8–10 September 2003. Edited by Jonathan G. Campbell, William John Lyons, and Lloyd K. Pietersen, 83–100. Library of Second Temple Studies 52. London: T&T Clark, 2005.

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    Inspired by Hoxnes’s work on Christian monasticism, an application of social-identity theory and the anthropological concept of “virtuoso” religious groups. Examines how ascetic practices, or the various restraints placed on members, constructed the group identity of the community. The “pooling of possessions” is viewed as “an ascetically charged transformative ritual.”

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  • Murphy, Catherine M. Wealth in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Qumran Community. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 40. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

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    Not simply about riches, but ownership and distribution of goods in commerce, marriage, and religious cult. Texts criticize the world beyond the community with opposing ideals and suggest relations internal to the community. In-depth analysis in relation to other literature and to archaeology, both from Qumran and elsewhere.

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  • Nikiprowetzky, Valentin. “Le De vita contemplativa revisité.” In Sagesse et religion: Colloque de Strasbourg (octobre 1976). Edited by Jean Leclant, 105–125. Bibliothèque des Centres d’Études Superieures Specialisés d’Histoire des Religions de Strasbourg. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979.

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    French study sets out the priestly aspect of the rituals adopted by the Therapeutae in Philo’s The Contemplative Life.

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  • Philo. The Contemplative Life. In Philon d’Alexandrie, De Vita Contemplativa. Edited with French translation by F. Daumas and P. Miquel. Les Oeuvres de Philon d ’Alexandrie 29. Paris: Le Cerf, 1963.

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    Sole source for a Jewish ascetic community, the Therapeutae, in 1st-century Egypt. Both French and English versions have helpful notes. English translation by David Winston, Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, The Giants, and Selections (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).

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  • Thiering, Barbara E. “The Biblical Source of Qumran Asceticism.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93.3 (1974): 429–444.

    DOI: 10.2307/3263388Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues for ascetic practices at Qumran (understood as an Essene community) as derived from biblical sources and signifying the adoption of a prophetic identity. Available online to subscribers.

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The Early Rabbinic Movement

Until recently, scholars generally accepted the view that rabbinic Judaism was simply hostile to asceticism in continuity with the biblical past, in contrast to the distinct developmental path taken by Christianity. More recent scholarship first recognizes certain ascetic practices in rabbinic Judaism, as set out by Diamond 2004. It also looks at how a negative stance toward sexual renunciation was deployed by Jewish writers in forming a distinct religious identity in contexts where Christian asceticism exerted a strong attraction (Koltun-Fromm 2003 and Naeh 1997). Modern scholars further question the simple divisions once assumed to exist between Christianity and Judaism and study the role played by attitudes toward the body and sexuality in the construction of different religious identities. Boyarin 1992 is the leading exponent of this subject. Harrington 2001 is cited because of its essential grasp of the background concepts of purity and holiness with which the rabbis approached ascetic issues.

  • Boyarin, Daniel. “‘Behold Israel According to the Flesh.’ On Anthropology and Sexuality in Late Antique Judaisms.” Yale Journal of Criticism 5.2 (1992): 26–57.

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    Saint Paul is here understood as internal to one of several Jewish ascetic traditions, of which Philo represents another. In this context, the position of the rabbis is seen as more ambivalent in the early rabbinic period and more complex than is normally recognized.

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  • Diamond, Eliezer. Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Diamond is aware of the difficulties of dating rabbinic texts, makes good use of source criticism to contextualize his material where possible, and assesses potential evidence for sexual renunciation such as James H. Charlesworth, History of the Rechabites (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982– ).

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  • Harrington, Hannah K. Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World. Religion in the First Christian Centuries. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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    Background study valuable especially for its account of holiness and purity, which draws on Mary Douglas (see Douglas 1970 and Douglas 1999, cited under The Hebrew Bible and Old Testament). Also includes brief assessment of evidence for celibacy. Omits discussion of fasting in times of drought.

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  • Koltun-Fromm, Naomi. “Zipporah’s Complaint: Moses Is Not Conscientious in the Deed! Exegetical Traditions of Moses’ Celibacy.” In The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Edited by Annette Yoshiko Reed and Adam H. Becker, 283–306. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.

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    Moses in the mid-4th century becomes the figure through which to construct an image of holiness and divine blessing based on marriage and procreation in opposition to Christian celibacy, while Christians reverse the argument and Moses to condemn Jews for lack of celibacy.

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  • Naeh, Shlomoh. “Freedom and Celibacy: A Talmudic Variation on Tales of Temptation and Fall in Genesis and Its Syrian Background.” In The Book of Genesis in Jewish and Oriental Christian Interpretation. Edited by J. Frishman and L. van Rompay, 73–89. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997.

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    How a struggle that took place within the Jewish community over asceticism. Analyzes the linguistic and structural aspects of the story to reveal a polemic against a Syriac Christian ideal of celibacy.

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The Ancient Near East

Little is known and written on ascetic practices in the ancient Near East outside Israel, though an Ugaritic text, for example, discussed briefly by Polentz 1982, attests to prophylactic fasting against illness. Posener 1982 offers a more detailed discussion of vowed voluntary abstention from fish in an Egyptian context. Such practices may be valuable for the comparison they enable with ancient Israelite custom, but the scholarship is not easily accessible to the general reader. The comparative study Largement 1964 remains a thought-provoking starting point, though readers should be wary of his generalizations and suppositions. Grabbe 1994 is included here as a valuable warning about the difficulties in comparative studies involving cultures widely separated geographically and chronologically. Detailed work was done in the 1960s by Rivkah Harris on celibate women dedicated to a god in the temple complexes of the Old Babylonian period. This work is summarized in Harris 1975 and taken forward by Stone 1982.

  • Grabbe, Lester L. “‘Canaanite’: Some Methodological Observations in Relation to Biblical Study.” In Ugarit and the Bible: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Ugarit and the Bible, Manchester, September 1992. Edited by George J. Brooke, Adrian Curtis, and John F. Healey, 113–122. Ugaritisch-biblisch Literatur 11. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 1994.

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    This essay is not about asceticism, but about the imprecise and misleading nature of the term “Canaanite,” especially when used in contrast with “Israelite.”

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  • Harris, Rivkah. Ancient Sippar: A Demographic Study of an Old-Babylonian City (1894–1595 B.C.). Uitgaven van het Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te İstanbul 36. Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Institut, 1975.

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    Includes a summary of specialist articles by Harris on the naditu, the wealthy unmarried women cloistered within the temple of Samas at Sippar.

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  • Largement, R. “L’ascétisme dans la civilisation suméro-sémitique.” Archives de Sociologie des Religions 18 (1964): 27–34.

    DOI: 10.3406/assr.1964.1766Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    French article discusses dietary, sexual, and other prohibitions at specific times, especially during the disappearance of the moon goddess; women dedicated to gods, lifelong celibacy, and childlessness; and Israelite abstentions seen against this background. Dubiously places Israelite abstention along a path from Near Eastern magic to Christian asceticism.

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  • Polentz, Bernhard. “Medizinhistorische Bemerkungen zu KTU 1.124 und RIH 78/20.” Materiali Lessicali ed Epigrafici 1 (1982): 47–50.

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    Very short German article on two Ugaritic texts, one of which concerns prevention of illness through abstention from fish, among other ritual actions.

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  • Posener, Georges. “Un voeu d’abstinence.” In Studies in Egyptian Religion: Dedicated to Professor Jan Zandee. Edited by Matthieu Heerma van Voss, D. J. Hoens, G. Mussies, and D. Van Der Plas, 121–126. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1982.

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    This French paper discusses an Egyptian miller’s vow apparently not to eat certain types of meat and speculates that the miller sought the healing intervention of a god.

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  • Stone, Elizabeth C. “The Social Role of the Nadītu Women in Old Babylonian Nippur.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25.1 (1982): 50–70.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852082X00076Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    These secluded and unmarried women were dedicated to the deity Ninurta. Active in the city’s economy, they occupied an important position in society before the invasion of Hammurabi.

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Greco-Roman Traditions

Literature on the philosophical asceticism of the Greco-Roman world has two primary interests: asceticism in particular philosophical schools, and asceticism as featured in the construction of the sage or holy man in Late Antiquity. Among the former studies, Goulet-Cazé 1986 and Goulet-Cazé 1990 exemplify the best recent scholarship on Cynicism. Malherbe 1977 allows us to check this against the sources, while Hadot 1995 is indispensable background reading on the training generally understood as fundamental by all such schools of thought. The rejection of cultural convention by outspoken Cynics, together with the limited persecution of some Stoic philosophers in the Early Roman Empire, raises the question of when and how far asceticism was a telling sign of political opposition. Francis 1995 takes the maximalist view. Two primary texts, Iamblichus 1989 and Porphyry 2000, show how asceticism figured in the Neoplatonist construction of the holy man. One of the major interests of scholarship on the holy man has been the continuities revealed between non-Christian and Christian conceptions of growing close to God through detachment from the passions. Recent scholarship, such as Clark 2000, suggests possible Christian influence on late pagan philosophy.

  • Clark, Gillian. “Philosophic Lives and the Philosophic Life: Porphyry and Iamblichus.” In Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Edited by T. Hägg and Philip Rousseau, 29–51. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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    A comparative study of ancient biographies by these two Neoplatonists shows how Iamblichus appropriates the figure of Pythagoras for his account of philosophy. Iamblichus draws on Porphyry’s earlier writings, in which Plotinus rather than Pythagoras features as the exemplar of the holy philosopher.

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  • Francis, James A. Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

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    The study focuses on 2nd-century CE Stoicism and Cynicism, with attention to Musonius and Epictetus, Seneca, Philostratus, and the satirical writings of Lucian. While ascetic ideals were acknowledged by elites, asceticism was deviant and therefore in some degree subversive of political authority. Particularly strong on Philostratus.

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  • Goulet-Cazé, Marie-Odile. L’ Ascèse cynique: Un commentaire de Diogène Laërce VI 70–71. Histoire des Doctrines de l’Antiquité Classique 10. Paris: Vrin, 1986.

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    Excellent French study that distinguishes between original Cynicism and its Hellenistic representation by Diogenes Laertius.

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  • Goulet-Cazé, Marie-Odile. “‘Le cynicisme à l’époque imperial.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.36.4 (1990): 2720–2833.

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    French study that complements the author’s earlier work on the Hellenistic reception and development of Cynicism. Looks at the Early Empire, at Julian’s later combination of respect for ancient Cynics with hostility toward their successors, and at possible Christian Cynics in Late Antiquity.

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  • Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Edited and translated by Arnold I. Davidson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

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    Although not on asceticism, a seminal background study on the religious motivations and general disciplinary exercises of the philosophical schools.

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  • Iamblichus. On the Pythagorean Life. Translated by Gillian Clark. Translated Texts for Historians 8. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1989.

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    A primary source from the late 2nd or early 3rd century allows us to see how Pythagoras figured in Neoplatonist asceticism and construction of the holy man. Clark’s excellent notes and introduction set the text in the much longer story of Pythagorean and Neo-Pythagorean thought.

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  • Malherbe, Abraham. The Cynic Epistles: A Study Edition. Sources for Biblical Study 12. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.

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    The Greek text with English translations of Pseudepigraphal letters from the Hellenistic and Augustan periods. Cynic asceticism is clearly located within the movement’s wider account of the virtues.

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  • Porphyry. On Abstinence from Killing Animals. Translated by Gillian Clark. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

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    A key text revealing the attempt of a Neoplatonist philosopher to argue for a universal asceticism recognized by Greco-Roman and other ancient sages. Excellent commentary by Clark.

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Early Christian Asceticism

Older scholarship identified a moderate asceticism among mainstream or orthodox Christians of the 1st and 2nd century, which was limited to preparation for an early return of Christ. “Extremes” of ascetic behavior and “excessive” ascetic practices were then associated with heretical groups, and in particular the “encratites,” before the rise of monasticism in the late 3rd century. More recent scholarship, such as Duncan and Derrett 1998, recognizes first that this earlier view was overly influenced by theological assumptions and polemic. Scholars have increasingly deconstructed or reinterpreted earlier categories such as “encratite.” Quispel 1982 offers a good historiography of the latter term. Scholars now acknowledge the complexity and variety of ascetic conduct within early Christian movements. This is well illustrated by the diverse essays in Wimbush and Valantasis 1998 and by Gager 1982. However, modern scholarship still struggles to assess the extent and form of much Early Christian asceticism among communities labeled as heretical by contemporary or later Christians. Writers on ascetic conduct who were counted among the developing orthodox tradition are more easily treated. Hunter 1992 and Behr 2000 are good examples of such scholarship on 2nd-century authors. Kannengiesser 1998 offers a similar study of a theologian from Late Antiquity. This part of the bibliography is then subdivided by types of text, and types of abstention, before concluding with the distinct phenomenon of early monasticism. Vööbus 1958 was crucial in directing attention to the specific nature of early Syriac monastic traditions, but should be used with caution.

  • Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198270003.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Behr ably locates the ascetic teachings of these 2nd-century antignostic writers within their wider theological concerns.

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  • Duncan, J., and M. Derrett. “Primitive Christianity as an Ascetic Movement.” In Asceticism. Edited by Vincent Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, 88–107. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Primitive Christianity here refers to “Jesus, his disciples, and Paul.” Derrett argues for the thesis given by his title, but allows us to hear in counterpoint the arguments against this by Anthony Harvey’s Strenuous Commands (London: SCM Press, 1990).

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  • Gager, John G. “Body-Symbols and Social Reality: Resurrection, Incarnation and Asceticism in Early Christianity.” Religion 12.4 (1982): 345–363.

    DOI: 10.1016/0048-721X(82)90054-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Applies to Early Christian asceticism the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas on the body as bearer of symbolic meaning. Gives particular attention to Egyptian monks and their beliefs about the resurrection.

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  • Hunter, David G. “The Language of Desire: Clement of Alexandria’s Transformation of Ascetic discourse.” Semeia 57 (1992): 95–111.

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    An exploration of the precise meaning of the terms that Clement used in his ascetic polemic with opponents, and how he challenged their use of key terms such as enkrateia.

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  • Kannengiesser, Charles. “Athanasius of Alexandria and the Ascetic Movement of His Time.” In Asceticism. Edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, 479–492. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Elegant, accessible essay that details Athanasius’s alliance with the Egyptian ascetics and sets it in a strong doctrinal as well as political context. Athanasius is presented as responding to certain attacks or questions with a “wall of silent prayer.”

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  • Quispel, Gilles. “The Study of Encratism: A Historical Survey.” In La tradizione dell’enkrateia: Motivazioni ontologiche e protologiche: Atti del colloquio internazionale, Milano, 20–23 aprile 1982. Edited by U. Bianchi, 31–85. Rome: Ed. dell’Ateneo, 1982.

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    A helpful study of the earlier historiography, but itself passing into history after thirty years of more recent work.

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  • Vööbus, Arthur. History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient: A Contribution to the History of Culture in the Near East. Vol. 1, The Origin of Asceticism: Early Monasticism in Persia. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1958.

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    Listed because of its seminal importance, this work must be read in conjunction with later studies by Robert Murray and other scholars. Its use of primary sources, and their ascription to particular authors and dates, is now contested.

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  • Wimbush, Vincent L., and Richard Valantasis, eds. Asceticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Diverse series of forty-three essays, of which four focus predominantly on the churches of the 1st and 2nd centuries, but nine on Christianity in Late Antiquity.

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Gospels and Acts

Scholarship on asceticism in the New Testament was long bedeviled by the Protestant conviction that asceticism was a foreign body to Christianity, and scholars therefore failed to give sustained attention to ascetic strands within the New Testament. Scholarship has until recently been focused largely around the exegesis of a relatively small number of passages, such as Muddiman 1975 on Mark 2:18–22, Moloney 1979 on Matthew 19:3–12, or 1 Corinthians 7 (see the section Saint Paul in this article). Davies and Allison 1997 represents here the best of modern scholarship in interpreting Matthew 19. In the Gospels, verses related to fasting and to renunciation of wealth have generally received greater attention than have those related to sexual renunciation, though Pitre 2001 is a good example of scholarship on a neglected text concerning the latter. Furthermore, Vincent Wimbush has led recent interest in the treatment of asceticism at a more general or wider level in specific books, authors, and the characters that they portray within New Testament texts. A conference at Toronto in 1996 led to the publication of Vaage and Wimbush 1999, which offers short essays examining many of the texts. For trenchant criticism of several of these essays and their common presuppositions, see Ling 2004 in the section General Overviews. Scholarship is now more open to reviewing the ascetic characterization of John the Baptist and of Jesus. In the case of the Baptist, his ascetic traits are broadly recognized, but their significance is disputed (see Taylor 1997). In the case of Jesus, scholars remain divided over whether he is to be termed an ascetic or a nonascetic figure who turned away from the ascetic practices of the Baptist (for the ascetic characterization, see Allison 1998 and Joseph 2010).

  • Allison, Dale C. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

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    The third of three main chapters (pp. 172–216) concerns “Jesus as Millenarian Ascetic.” Some may be irritated by reference to chapter and verse in Q as though it were a real document and “source,” but Allison rightly includes renunciation of wealth by Jesus alongside the more controversial evidence on his attitude to fasting and sexual renunciation. These are related to Jesus’ “eschatological convictions.”

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  • Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Vol. 3, Commentary on Matthew XIX–XXVIII. International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997.

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    Detailed exegesis on the Greek of Matthew 19 concerning the teaching on monogamy, divorce, celibacy, and wealth. Disagrees with Maloney 1979 insofar as the teaching on celibacy is not an imposition on the divorced; agrees with Maloney that 19:12 is a saying of Jesus in response to taunting.

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  • Joseph, Simon J. “The Ascetic Jesus.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 8.2 (2010): 146–181.

    DOI: 10.1163/174551910X504891Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The maximalist case for viewing Jesus as an ascetic emerging within the ascetic circles of the Baptist. Jesus inspires an ascetic movement in primitive Christianity associated with the supposed Q tradition. Joseph uses a comparative methodology showing features shared between Jesus and ascetic figures in other religious traditions.

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  • Moloney, Francis J. “Matthew 19: 3–12 and Celibacy: A Redactional and Form Critical Study.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 1.2 (1979): 42–60.

    DOI: 10.1177/0142064X7900100203Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues first that Matthew means 19:12 to be taken with the preceding verses on divorce; Gentile converts may be unable to remarry. Second, this verse reapplies an original saying of Christ, who defends his own celibacy by using the word “eunuch” with which he had been taunted.

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  • Muddiman, John. “Jesus and Fasting: Mark ii. 18–22.” In Jesus aux origines de la christologie. 2d ed. Edited by Jacques Dupont, 271–281. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 40. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1975.

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    Where 20th-century exegetes rejected these verses as an actual saying of Christ, or divided them into an aphorism of Jesus reworked by the early church, Muddiman uses Käsemann’s dissimilarity criterion to argue for the saying’s essential authenticity when not interpreted as an implicit Messianic claim or prediction of the Passion. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Pitre, Brant James. “Blessing the Barren and Warning the Fecund: Jesus’ Message for Women Concerning Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 81 (2001): 59–80.

    DOI: 10.1177/0142064X010230810Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bold reading of the beatitudes for the barren and woes for mothers as evidence for Jesus as promoting an “apocalyptic asceticism.” Builds on a reading of Matthew 19:3–12, and on the presumed celibacy of Jesus.

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  • Taylor, Joan E. The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism. Studying the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1997.

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    Contains on pages 32–42 a valuable assessment of the Baptist’s asceticism in its historical context that distances him from the Essenes and brings him close to the portrait of Bannus in the writings of Josephus.

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  • Vaage, Leif E., and Vincent L. Wimbush. Asceticism and the New Testament. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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    Introduction by editors prefaces twenty-four essays: eight on the Gospels and Acts, six on Paul’s letters, six on disputed Pauline texts, and six on other epistles. The quality is uneven, but three on Luke and Acts merit attention, especially Turid Karlsen Seim, “Children of the Resurrection: Perspectives on Angelic Asceticism in Luke-Acts” (pp. 115–126).

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Saint Paul

Modern scholarship has largely concentrated on the meaning in its social context of Paul’s teaching on marriage, celibacy, and virginity at 1 Corinthians 7. Scholars generally accept the existence at Corinth of an “ascetic party” that was opposed by Paul and whose arguments he cites at various points within his own writings. Scholars also differ on how this ascetic party is to be understood, its sources of inspiration, on the details of Paul’s response to them, and the influences on his teaching. The citations offered here, but especially Castelli 1999, are chosen to introduce the reader to a wide selection of these different readings. Moiser 1983 offers the reader a balanced overview. Balch 1972 then exemplifies readings that seek to place the debate in a Jewish-Christian context, while Balch 1983 exemplifies readings that offer a Hellenistic philosophical context. Bowen Ward 1990 offers a corrective to Balch 1983, and Boyarin 1998 represents a dissenting or minority view that makes much of Paul’s ascetic intent and, at the very least, enables us to see how many early Christians perhaps misunderstood what they read. MacDonald 1990 and Wimbush 1993 both concern the wider sociological significance of Paul’s teaching: the former sets the debate in a wider concern with gender; the latter looks at how asceticism features in the social construction of the self.

  • Balch, David L. “Backgrounds of I Cor. VII: Sayings of the Lord in Q; Moses as an Ascetic ΘΕΙΟΣ ANHP in II Cor. III.” New Testament Studies 18 (1972): 351–364.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500019482Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sees an ascetic party at Corinth influenced by sayings of Jesus transmitted by the Q source, and possibly by the characterization of Moses as a celibate ascetic, which can be found in Philo.

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  • Balch, David L. “1 Cor 7:32–35 and Stoic Debates about Marriage, Anxiety, and Distraction.” Journal of Biblical Literature 102.3 (1983): 429–439.

    DOI: 10.2307/3261016Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sees in Paul a reflection of Stoic ideas about freedom from anxieties. Paul consciously uses Stoic terms and ideas to persuade Corinthian ascetics. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Bowen Ward, Roy. “Musonius and Paul on Marriage.” New Testament Studies 36 (1990): 281–289.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500015095Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Rejects the reading of Musonius in Balch 1983 to offer a more detailed account, and thereby opens up a greater distance between this Stoic and the apostle, whose own position is more simply stated: marriage is permitted for the akratic. Does not explore the Corinthian context.

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  • Boyarin, Daniel. “Body Politic among the Brides of Christ: Paul and the Origins of Christian Sexual Renunciation.” In Asceticism. Edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, 459–478. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    A highly controversial study of Romans 7 that makes Paul, in opposition to the reading of Peter Brown and most other scholars, a “proto-encratite.” Valuable as an alternative reading, and at least an index of how Paul might be misread by many early Christians.

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  • Castelli, Elizabeth A. “Disciplines of Difference: Asceticism and History in Paul.” In Asceticism and the New Testament. Edited by Leif E. Vaage and Vincent L. Wimbush, 171–185. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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    Useful in giving neat summaries of readings by Dale Martin, Antoinette Clark Wire, Peter Brown, and Daniel Boyarin on 1 Corinthians 7.

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  • MacDonald, Margaret Y. “Women Holy in Body and Spirit: The Social Setting of 1 Corinthians 7.” New Testament Studies 36 (1990): 161–181.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500015046Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on Pastorals, Galatians, and the Apocrypha to speculate on the background to Paul’s counsel on marriage and celibacy as safeguards against immorality. Removal of veils by women prominent among Corinthian ascetics belongs in the same symbolic repertoire as do celibacy and ecstatic prayer, to indicate transcendence of sexual differentiation in Christ. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Moiser, Jeremy. “A Reassessment of Paul’s View of Marriage with Reference to 1 COR. 7.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 18 (1983): 103–122.

    DOI: 10.1177/0142064X8300501805Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Judicious in selecting between the possible readings of this chapter. Sees Paul as the widower who defends existing marital relations despite pressure to adopt radical ascetic practices in awaiting the return of Christ. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Wimbush, Vincent L. “The Ascetic Impulse in Early Christianity: Some Methodological Challenges.” In Biblica et apocrypha, Orientala, Ascetica: Papers Presented to the Eleventh International Conference on Patristic Studies Held at Oxford. Edited by Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 462–478. Studia Patristica 25. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1993.

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    Wimbush offers in the second part of the paper an analysis of the situation at Corinth revealed or implied by 1 Cor 7. Strong on the role of asceticism and resistance to certain ascetic behaviors, for Christian self-definition. Draws succinctly on the author’s earlier Paul, the Worldly Ascetic: Response to the World and Self-Understanding According to 1 Corinthians 7 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987).

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Non-Pauline Epistles and Revelation

There is little directly on ascetic practices in the non-Pauline epistles and Revelation, but the significance of what little there is remains the subject of scholarly debate. One key text is Revelation 14:4, the male “virgins” or “celibates” who follow the lamb. Scholars divide on how best to describe them, on the reason for their renunciation, and on its literal or metaphorical significance. Aune 1996 and Aune 1998 guide the reader through the different interpretations. There has also been much fruitful consideration of the contemporary implications of such renunciation of wealth as is implied or exhorted by the Letter of James. Where Bauckham 1999 and Johnson 2004 are open to James’s authorship, Edgar 2001 sees the text as a pseudepigraphon and argues for a date in the 60s CE.

  • Aune, David E. “Following the Lamb: Discipleship in the Apocalypse.” In Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament. Edited by R. N. Longenecker, 269–284. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

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    This article is easier to follow than the biblical commentary Aune 1998, with less detail but the same thesis concerning the metaphorical celibacy of the 144,000.

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  • Aune, David E. Revelation 6–16. Word Biblical Commentary 52B. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

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    Detailed analysis of the Greek text and a similarly detailed discussion of how different scholars have interpreted the celibacy of the 144,000 who follow the lamb. See especially pages 810–812 and 818–822.

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  • Batten, Alicia J. “An Asceticism of Resistance in James.” In Asceticism and the New Testament. Edited by Leif E. Vaage and Vincent L. Wimbush, 355–370. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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    An opening definition of asceticism provides the lens through which to read the Letter of James. Restraint of desire for different goods creates a “disciplined nonconformity” in the Christian community, but an extreme distrust of wealth is at odds with the desire for social stability.

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  • Bauckham, Richard. James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. New Testament Readings. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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    Compared against other wisdom literature, James is distinctive in the renunciation of status and honoring of the poor. Chapter 4 initiates a sustained critical reflection on the implications of James’s teaching for modern churches. This concludes with the importance of recovering the distinction between sufficiency and excess.

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  • Edgar, David Hutchinson. Has God Not Chosen the Poor? The Social Setting of the Epistle of James? Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

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    If Edgar’s dating is correct, valuable for what the study confirms about early Christian attitudes toward wealth as corrosive to Christian community and missionary activity when not renounced or shared generously.

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  • Johnson, Luke Timothy. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.

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    These essays build on Johnson’s Anchor Bible commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1995). Renouncing wealth is situated within Christianity, which is viewed as “a community of solidarity.” Pages 202–220 and 245–259 show how the Letter contrasts a Christian identity open to sharing God’s gifts with a closed world where envy generates hatred, self-interest, and murder.

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Apocryphal Texts

Older scholarship saw the apocryphal Gospels and Acts, such as the Acts of Thomas (see Klijn 2003), as largely peripheral to the history of early Christianity because they were external to the chain of developing orthodox doctrines, texts, and churches, which in retrospect claimed a central place in the church’s memory and history. Newer scholarship corrected this distortion to recognize the greater diversity of texts valued within early Christianity, and the continuing readership in many churches of texts that were not included in the final canon of inspired writings recited in the liturgy. With respect to ascetic themes, scholars generally recognize their literary significance within the Apocrypha, but differ on the relationship between literature and life. McGowan 1999, a controversial example of confidence in reconstructing practices from texts, remains one of the few studies dedicated to the presentation in the Acts of “ascetic eucharists.” Sexual renunciation in the Apocryphal Acts has been well explored by several scholars, such as Burrus 1987, Konstan 1998, and Tissot 1988. Less attention has been given to the theme of renouncing wealth, and less again to abstention from food. With respect to the Apocryphal Gospels, no consensus has emerged concerning the date of the most significant with respect to ascetic themes, the Gospel of Thomas. Baarda 1988 and Valantasis 1999 indicate the difficulty of reading such texts—the former at the local level of an individual saying, the latter concerning the text as a whole. Uro 1997 tackles a specific ascetic theme within the work.

  • Baarda, T. “‘If you do not sabbatize the Sabbath . . .’: The Sabbath as God or World in Gnostic Understanding (Ev. Thom., Log. 27).” In Knowledge of God in the Graeco-Roman World. Edited by R. Van Den Broek, T. Baarda, and J. Mansfeld, 178–201. Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain 112. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1988.

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    Focused on a single saying, logion 27 in the Gospel of Thomas, which requires either literal or metaphorical fasting.

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  • Burrus, Virginia. Chastity as Autonomy: Women in the Stories of Apocryphal Acts. Studies in Women and Religion 23. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1987.

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    Controversially sees the texts as originating in folk stories by women whose experience has shaped their concerns.

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  • Klijn, A.F.J., ed. and trans. Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. 2d rev. ed. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 108. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

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    A picaresque tale of the apostle’s miracles, travels, and refusal of wealth, in which he wins female converts through preaching sexual renunciation and thereby stirs up the violence of these women’s husbands. Ably introduced and annotated by Klijn. E-book.

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  • Konstan, David. “Acts of Love: A Narrative Pattern in the Apocryphal Acts.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.1 (1998): 15–36.

    DOI: 10.1353/earl.1998.0013Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A persuasive analysis of how the Apocryphal Acts reverse patterns found in the Greek novel. Sexual renunciation is linked to the collapse of hierarchical distinctions and gender roles, yet the threat to household order is averted through the healing power of the apostle.

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  • McGowan, Andrew. Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals. Oxford Early Christian Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    McGowan details evidence, in the Apocryphal Acts and from the heresiologists, for Eucharists celebrated with water rather than with wine. These are seen as possible indicators of actual practice on a wide scale.

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  • Tissot, Yves. “L’encratisme des Actes de Thomas.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.25.6 (1988): 4415–4430.

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    French article identifies a non-encratite account of the apostle’s miracles that has been redacted by an encratite author who relates the apostle’s martyrdom to his message of sexual renunciation and the conversions that it inspires. The resultant acta are more extreme in this regard than the other extant Apocrypha.

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  • Uro, Risto. “Asceticism and Anti-Familial Language in the Gospel of Thomas.” In Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor. Edited by Halvor Moxnes, 216–234. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203440490Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the theme of “homelessness,” and the rejection of biological parentage as a source of honor, to specify the type of asceticism in this text.

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  • Valantasis, Richard. “Is the Gospel of Thomas Ascetical? Revisiting an Old Problem with a New Theory.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7.1 (1999): 55–81.

    DOI: 10.1353/earl.1999.0020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Where Kaestli and Buckley have differed in interpreting the absence of definitive ascetic prohibitions, Valantasis identifies asceticism in “practices that inaugurate a new identity in the context of a received identity.” The Gospel of Thomas is ascetic in promoting “a positive agenda of refashioning the self.” Available online to subscribers.

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Fasting and Other Food Practices

The evidence from primary sources such as Tertullian 1954 shows that fasting was of great significance to Early Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries. Nonetheless, scholars traditionally followed the early heresiologists in identifying “excessive” fasting with “encratite” heretics external to supposedly mainstream churches. A judicious assessment of early ascetic practice is given in relation to the Didache by O’Loughlin 2003. An outstanding question from this early period is what to make of the bread and water Eucharists portrayed in Apocryphal Acts. McGowan 1999 views them as evidence for a widespread practice later suppressed. For fasting by Christians in Late Antiquity, Musurillo 1956 is a good starting point for Greek primary texts, but lacks the sociological approach of recent scholarship. Grimm 1996 is a thorough guide to early Christian attitudes toward food abstention. Freiburger, et al. 2009 allows the nonspecialist reader rapidly to place Christian practice in a wider context.

  • Freiburger, Oliver, Thomas Podella, Otto Böcher, et al. “Fasting.” In Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion. Vol. 5, F–Haz. Edited by Hans D. Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski, and Eberhard Jüngel, 59–64. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

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    Six succinct articles discuss fasting in relation to the history of religions, Old Testament, Christianity, ethics, Judaism, and Islam. Valuable when read together rather than taken singly. English translation of the German encyclopedia Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1998–2005).

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  • Grimm, Veronika E. From Feasting to Fasting, the Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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    Includes helpful discussion of texts by Clement, Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine. E-book.

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  • McGowan, Andrew. Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

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    McGowan looks at evidence, in the Apocryphal Acts and elsewhere, for Eucharists celebrated with water rather than with wine, and their relation to the rejection of sexual relations in marriage. Takes a maximalist view of ascetic practice on the basis of the literature.

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  • Musurillo, Herbert. “The Problem of Ascetical Fasting in the Greek Patristic Writers.” Traditio 12 (1956): 1–64.

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    A detailed account of how Chrysostom, Basil, and later authors discuss fasting; Musurillo offers a quick route to the relevant primary texts and key passages. He relates these Greek patristic texts to, and compares them with, those of the Neoplatonist philosophers. Available online to subscribers.

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  • O’Loughlin, Thomas. “The Didache as a Source for Picturing the Earliest Christian Communities: The Case of the Practice of Fasting.” In Christian Origins: Worship, Belief and Society: The Milltown Institute and the Irish Biblical Association Millennium Conference. Edited by Kieran J. O’Mahony, 83–112. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 241. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003.

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    The first third of the article concerns the historiography and dating of the Didache, and the second defends fasting as a communal ritual of 1st-century Christians in collective prayer for the good of others. The third focuses on the identity or communion constructed through fasting. Gospels shape meanings to existing practices.

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  • Tertullian. “On Fasting.” In Tertulliani Opera. Part 2, Montanistica. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 2. Edited by A. Gerlo, 1257–1277. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1954.

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    Important for the study of xerophagy among Montanists, as well as for insights into stational fasts practiced more widely in North Africa and Rome.

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Sexual Renunciation

Much modern scholarship on sexual renunciation in early Christianity effectively begins with Brown 1989 and Brown 1990. These works established the key range of meanings in the Greco-Roman world for permanent voluntary abstention from sexual relations. The studies heralded detailed interest in this ascetic practice by individuals within Greco-Roman Christianity, such as Elm 1994, and better appreciation of its widespread popularity. Clark 1999 then examines the rhetorical strategies by which Christian discourse drew on the Bible to establish, legitimate, or reinforce the meanings informing this pattern of conduct. Hunter 2007b deals less with the meanings of sexual renunciation than its influence and development in its familial and clerical contexts, making the article a bridge to wider social and ecclesiastical histories. After so much detailed attention to sexual abstention, some more recent scholarship such as Hunter 2007a now redresses the balance by reaffirming the extent of opposition to this type of asceticism. A separate strand of scholarship represented here by Griffith 1995 and Murray 2004 concerns the unresolved issue of the nature and extent of an “encratite” tradition within Syriac Christianity and Marcionism, according to which sexual renunciation was held intrinsic to the life of all baptized Christians.

  • Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989.

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    The single most important work on the meaning of sexual renunciation in early Christianity, and of food abstention in relation to continence. Brown sets ascetic practice in the context of classical medical theory.

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  • Brown, Peter. “Bodies and Minds: Sexuality and Renunciation in Early Christianity.” In Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient World. Edited by D. M. Halperin, J. J. Winkler, and F. I. Zeitlin, 479–490. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

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    A valuable exploration of the symbolic meaning of sexual renunciation as expressive of human freedom under grace.

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  • Clark, Elizabeth A. Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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    A sophisticated study of how Greek and Latin authors from the 2nd to the 5th century used biblical texts in their own ascetic discourse. Excellent classification and description of the authors’ exegetical strategies. Of particular value for Jerome, Origen, and Chrysostom.

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  • Elm, Susanna. “Virgins of God”: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

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    Asceticism is a discipline based on “distinct stoic-platonic notions” of union with the divine. The book largely concerns a limited strand of sexual renunciation among educated aristocratic women and their households in the Greek East and Egypt during Late Antiquity. Excellent on Macrina, the sister of Basil the Great.

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  • Griffith, S. H. “Asceticism in the Church of Syria: The Hermeneutics of Early Syrian Monasticism.” In Asceticism. Edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, 220–245. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Judicious and cautious assessment of how much can be inferred from 4th-century baptismal rites about the practice of 2nd-century Syriac Christians.

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  • Hunter, David G. Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007a.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199279784.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hunter deals with sexual renunciation as opposed by “anti-ascetic tendencies in early Christianity.”

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  • Hunter, David G. “Sexuality, Marriage and the Family.” In The Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol. 2, Constantine to c. 600. Edited by A. Casiday and F. W. Norris, 585–600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007b.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521812443Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A helpful overview with good account of changes in clerical celibacy.

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  • Murray, Robert. Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition. 2d ed. London: T&T Clark, 2004.

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    The history of the early Syriac church as opposed to later legend. Studies the ascetic “sons and daughters of the covenant.” How works by Aphrahat and Ephrem reveal earlier baptismal liturgies in which some neophytes vowed sexual renunciation.

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  • Niederwimmer, Kurt. Askese und Mysterium: Über Ehe, Ehescheidung und Eheverzicht in den Anfängen des christlichen Glaubens. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 113. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975.

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    Major monograph on Early Christian attitudes toward marriage and the ascetic renunciation of marriage, which stresses the continuity with Palestinian Judaism and the teachings of Jesus.

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Renouncing Wealth and Property

Modern scholarship has had to shake off the belief that the early history of Christian renunciation of wealth was one of increasingly sharp decline from the original practice ascribed in the Acts of the Apostles to the Jerusalem community. Johnson 1981 sets out the complex nature of the teachings on, and attitudes toward wealth within the Bible, which exercised an authoritative influence on Early Christians. Augustine of Hippo 1995 is one example of primary sources revealing how centrally the renunciation of property might feature in Christian communities as they variously interpreted Biblical texts, including Acts. Pseudo-Ambrose 1848 is indicative of other Late Antique debates over renunciation of wealth. Countryman 1980 remains the standard account of Christian attitudes toward wealth in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but can be supplemented by more detailed focused studies of literary symbols and texts by Osiek 1983 and Finn 2007. For the Late Roman Empire, see Finn 2006 and Harries 1984.

  • Augustine of Hippo. Sermons 355 and 356. Translation and notes by Edmund Hill. In The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Part 3, Sermons. Vol. 10, Sermons on Various Subjects. Edited by John Rotelle, 166–184. Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1995.

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    Augustine’s insistence that his monastic clerics renounce their property after the death of one of them, Januarius, reveals his belief that he had possessions to bequeath. How Augustine interpreted Acts 4.

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  • Countryman, L. W. The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire: Contradictions and Accommodations. Texts and Studies in Religion 7. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1980.

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    Chapter 1 contains a good account of Clement’s sermon on almsgiving, Quis Dives, a text opposed to full renunciation of wealth. Chapter 2 offers a helpful summary of Christian attitudes toward wealth in this period. Chapter 4 details the perceived dangers of wealth.

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  • Finn, Richard. Almsgiving in the Later Roman Empire: Christian Promotion and Practice, 313–450. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199283606.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While the book concerns the meaning and practices of varied forms of almsgiving, chapter 3 in particular discusses self-dispossession of wealth as a form of entry into the ascetic or monastic life, as a literary topos, and as attracting alms to monasteries for redistribution. E-book.

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  • Finn, Richard. “Almsgiving for the Pure of Heart: Continuity and Change in Early Christian Teaching.” In Severan Culture. Edited by Simon Swain, Stephen Harrison, and Jaś Elsner, 419–429. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    How wealth relates to the virtue of simplicity and to the vice of “double-mindedness” in the letter of James, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the writings of Origen.

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  • Harries, J. “‘Treasure in Heaven’: Property and Inheritance among Senators of Late Rome.” In Marriage and Property. Edited by E. M. Craik, 54–70. Aberdeen, UK: Aberdeen University Press, 1984.

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    The study reveals how rare total renunciation was among elite Roman Christians and also details the practice by ascetics of giving wealth to other family members.

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  • Johnson, Luke Timothy. Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith. Overtures to Biblical Theology 9. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981.

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    Accessible, thought-provoking exercise in biblical theology informed by a philosophical anthropology in which possessions are an extension of the person and their relationships. Study of Luke-Acts, including renunciation of possessions by disciples, leads to denial of a unitary biblical ethic, but discusses the symbolic role of possessions in the context of faith.

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  • Osiek, Carolyn. “The Widow as Altar: The Rise and Fall of a Symbol.” The Second Century 3.3 (1983): 159–169.

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    Valuable article for what it tells about early preachers promoted almsgiving; wealth is transmuted into an offering acceptable to God when given to the church’s widows, who then pray for the benefactor. Available online to subscribers.

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  • Pseudo-Ambrose. Sermon against Those Who Say That Possessions Are Not to Be Dispersed, but Their Fruits Used for Almsgiving. In Patrologia: Series Latina: Patrologiae cursus completus. Edited by J.-P. Migne, 119A–122A. Paris, 1848.

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    Polemical Latin sermon traditionally but wrongly ascribed to Ambrose, which promotes self-dispossession of wealth, but also reveals resistance to this teaching.

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Early Monastic Asceticism

A lively debate among scholars of early monasticism continues over its origins, relationship to lay asceticism, and the extent of Origen’s influence, especially on the desert fathers in Egypt. Scholars on that region are still divided over the fidelity of Athanasius’s portrayal of Antony in his Life (Athanasius 1980 and Athanasius 2004), and over the status of Antony’s letters. For a strong defense of the latter’s authenticity, see Rubenson 1995. Casiday 2006 reveals the extent of Origen’s influence on Evagrius. Other citations introduce the reader to different principal strands of monastic tradition. Rousseau 1985 introduces Pachomian monasticism; Rousseau 1994, a biography of Basil, is chosen for its account of his role in shaping Cappadocian monasticism. Stewart 1998 sets out Cassian’s legacy to Western monasticism. The distinctive nature, context, and influence of Syriac asceticism are evident in Theodoret of Cyrrhus 1985 and have received valuable recent attention from Caner 2002.

  • Athanasius. Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. English translation by Robert C. Gregg. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

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    A major source for Antony, but also the single most important text that influenced the rise of monasticism in the Greco-Roman world. Its presentation of the saint is to be compared with that of the figure who appears in the letters translated in Rubenson 1995.

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  • Athanasius. Vie d’Antoine. Greek critical edition and French translation with introduction by Gerhardus Bartelink. Sources Chretiennes 400. Paris: Le Cerf, 2004.

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    Offers in French a detailed introduction to the Life of Antony including discussion of authorship, dating, language of original composition, and intended audience. Essential for scholarly research. The 2004 edition is some twenty pages longer than the 1994 original. The new appendix largely offers updated bibliographical details relating to translations and historical points, but there are also some corrections to the Greek text and French translation.

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  • Caner, Daniel. Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 33. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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    Innovative study of journeying by monks and their dependence on alms, both eventually rejected in the West. These are shown to be central to Syriac ascetic traditions, and more frequent in early Egypt than was previously acknowledged. Such practices facilitated radical dependence on God and devotion to prayer.

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  • Casiday, A. M. Evagrius Ponticus. Early Church Fathers. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203356975Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A succinct introduction to the writings of this erudite desert father is followed by a sampler of annotated translations selected from his works.

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  • Rousseau, Philip. Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth-Century Egypt. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 6. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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    Rousseau reconstructs the early history and daily life of the Pachomian federated monasteries from Lives of the founder and from the later Rule. Careful interpretation reveals the vision informing detailed regulation.

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  • Rousseau, Philip. Basil of Caesarea. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 20. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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    Definitive modern biography of Basil, which pays particular attention to the evolution of Basil’s legislative writings for monks both during his lifetime and after his death.

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  • Rubenson, Samuel. The Letters of St. Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

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    An English translation of the letters attributed to Antony of Egypt. Rubenson argues persuasively for their authenticity, and therefore for the strong influence of Origen’s ascetic theology on early Egyptian semi-anchoretic monks.

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  • Stewart, Columba. Cassian the Monk. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    A detailed and theologically informed study of Cassian’s life and writings, which both reveals the extent of his debt to earlier Greek writers, in particular Evagrius, and establishes the originality of the Latin synthesis that so influenced the Western tradition.

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  • Theodoret of Cyrrhus. A History of the Monks of Syria. Translated by R. M. Price. Cistercian Studies series 88. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985.

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    A series of portraits heroizing solitary ascetics whose severe mortifications attracted many disciples. A strong introduction by the translator sets the work by this 5th-century bishop in its Syriac context.

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LAST MODIFIED: 01/11/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393361-0110

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